People who grew up in cities are better at navigating grid-like environments full of straight routes, while those raised in more rural settings are best at navigating routes that meander
People are better at navigating environments that are similar to those in which they grew up.
Hugo Spiers at University College London and his colleagues have previously used a mobile video game called Sea Hero Quest to explore our sense of direction. Their earlier work found that people who grew up outside cities have a better sense of direction than those who spent their childhood in cities.
During the game, players must memorise a map before navigating a virtual world in a boat to find checkpoints as quickly as possible. The researchers can then measure a person’s sense of direction by tracking how efficiently they do this. The game has been shown to predict our ability to orientate ourselves in the real world and was originally designed to track the loss of this skill in Alzheimer’s disease.
Now, the researchers have analysed data from nearly 10,000 people aged 19 to 70 who played all 75 levels of the game, finding that those who grew up in cities aren’t worse at navigation in all contexts. Instead, these people come out on top when having to find their way around environments with a grid-like structure of straight routes that reflects the geography of many cities.
People who grew up in areas outside cities are better at navigating environments with more wiggly routes. The team reached these conclusions even after controlling for the age, sex, video gaming skill and educational level of volunteers.
“When we look closer, grid-like cities aren’t bad for navigation skills,” says Spiers. “In game levels with environments that have more grid-like layouts, those people [who grew up in cities with a similar grid-like structure] are actually doing slightly better than those who grew up in rural areas.”
“People sort of optimise their abilities to the environments that they interact with,” says Marc Berman at the University of Chicago. He wasn’t involved in the analysis, but thinks it is well done. “The sample diversity and size are terrific and the participants were not aware of what was being tested. They were just playing a game,” he says.
The team also found that the area people lived in at the time of playing the game had no effect on their ability to navigate. “We saw that, for example, people who grew up in a rural area and then moved to a city didn’t change their navigation ability – it was the growing up part that mattered,” says Spiers.
Spiers speculates that the environment you grow up in may affect the way certain neurons called grid cells, part of the brain’s positioning system, transmit electrical signals during a critical stage of development. These cells and their pattern of activity may then remain for life, giving people a particular navigation style.
“However, we have to account for the fact that we measured spatial navigation using a video game which isn’t the same as real-world navigation,” says Spiers.
You can request to play Sea Hero Quest to provide data for dementia research by emailing email@example.com.
Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04486-7
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